I once dated a woman who got a Bachelor of Music in Performance. She specialized in opera and her voice was flawless. Beyond that, she could play cello and just about any instrument she picked up. Her knowledge of music was encyclopedic. What’s she doing now? Working at a brewery.
Her story is one of millions who set out to learn everything they can and do everything they can to become a professional musician, yet the goal escapes them. Is college a waste of time and money for career musicians? Is there something incompatible about today’s popular music world and the academic world?
When it comes to making music your full-time thing, it’s just as much about drive and who you know as it is anything else. If you have the drive to play every day, you play every day; if you have the drive to tirelessly promote online and book shows for your band, you do it; if you want to record until your songs are captured perfectly for the listener, you record; if you want to put together a great press package and submit to record labels — you get the point.
If music is all about drive and passion, college seem ancillary. It’s like recommended reading. Great to get some context, but not absolutely necessary.
I would argue that college does offer something extremely valuable for musicians: experience.
The Incredibly Mind-Expanding Possibilities of College
Ever heard of biomimicry? Turns out there’s a degree in it. “The mix of online and field study was what made it so life-changing,” says Sara Al-Sayed, who got her degree in biomimicry from ASU. “It was a shift in my paradigm and the way I look at the world.” This paradigm shift easily translates into the world of music. Instruments that imitate birds and whales. Soundscapes that mirror the landscape. The possibilities are as infinite as nature itself.
At MIT, Professor of Engineering Markus Buehler had a composer develop a musical model of a spider web in order to study its network and composition. The implication is that “there may be more in common between a spider web and a concerto than one might initially suppose. Just as silk is made up of protein sequences, words are made up of phonemes and music is made up of different waveforms. Just as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen make up protein materials, the basic building blocks of music are sound waves with different frequencies.”
This opens up a brand new way of looking at music. The very building blocks of music mimic nature, and in fact, music is akin to nature as sound is to movement.
As musicians, we often get stuck in a self-reflexive bubble. The sounds we make are a response to other people’s sounds. In that way, it’s a conversation, but it’s one limited by what we listen to. College forces you to listen to what other people are doing, it gives you a perspective on the spectrum of knowledge in the world. This perspective can inform expansive, groundbreaking music.
Paying for the Mind-Expanding Possibilities of College
Until they realized college opens up a lot of doors (physical and mental), most of the musicians I know didn’t want to pay for college. The specter of debt looms large over higher education. When you want to make it in the music business, it’s hard to justify the cost of an education that may or may not help you make it.
Interestingly, student loans are a muse for an artist like Reesa Renee, who has amassed a fanbase of over 25,000 followers on social media channels. She’s looking for a hit song to help pay off her loans. For her, debt is a motivating factor, not a hang-up. In case you’re wondering, the average debt for college grads in 2016 was $37,000, and if you want to go to grad school, the price is about $100,000 for the top programs. You have to earn a ton of YouTube and Spotify plays and sell a lot of records to plunk down $37,000. But that’s the point: without debt there, you wouldn’t have a concrete figure to aim for. You can’t underestimate a solid external motivator.
In 2016, the New Orleans-based rapper Dee-1 even scored a hit rapping about getting out of student loan debt. And the nice thing about having a college degree is there are a lot more high-paying jobs available. If you need a side-hustle for when you’re not touring, it’ll be easier to land a job if you have a degree.
Ultimately, the dilemma of whether to go to college is a question of commitment. You’re one hundred percent committed to music. So why waste time at college when you could be writing songs, touring and promoting your music? But you’d be surprised what going to college can do for your musical career. Get into the music program and you’ll meet other people who are after the same thing you are. Learn about a subject like biomimicry and you’ll have a perspective you wouldn’t have had otherwise. College isn’t absolutely necessary for the career musician, but it sure is a great avenue to explore.